No great business starts overnight; it takes time. At Campaigns for Students, we want to enhance and develop the skillsets of students so that they feel empowered to deliver change, but this is going to be a long and constantly evolving process.
We made the decision to start this business back in Summer 2020, after many of us had finished our terms as Students’ Union Officers. The higher education sector is a weird and wonderful place, and one thing that we’ve all learned is that above anything else it’s unpredictable.
The turbulence that drove us
The last few years have brought real turbulence to the world of Students’ Unions – and there is a fair argument that none was more outstanding in sheer terms of unpredictability than the 2019/20 Academic Year.
Over the last academic year the sector saw things you could never imagine.
Firstly, there was a new prime-minister taking office back in July 2019 following the resignation of Theresa May as Prime Minister. The United Kingdom was entrenched in discussions around Brexit still, and the election of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party ultimately meant that the UK was likely to be heading in one direction; out of the European Union.
Whilst there was changes coming in Westminster, the higher education sector braced itself for a turbulent first semester which ultimately centred around campaigning. There was a wave of strikes across Universities as staff took to the pickets over pay and pensions, for which many Students’ Unions stood in solidarity with UCU colleagues. There were also climate strikes across the country as thousands of young people took to streets to voice their dismay at climate change. The piece de resistance however, went to a December General Election which was ultimately to change the country forever. Known as the “Brexit Election”, Boris Johnson came away with a landslide victory with an overwhelming majority, which saw the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats.
That was 2019 though, and 2020 brought with it the a far more turbulent start. By the end of January, the UK formally began its departure from the European Union. Towards the end of February, we saw more strike action across Universities. Ultimately by the end of March, there was a new and much greater issue facing the world in the Coronavirus pandemic. We all know what happened there, and there’s no point in covering it all over again; mainly as we’re living through it still. It doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon either.
The relevance of this to us wanting to set up a business focused around student campaigning though?
Whilst the political turbulence in the United Kingdom has given more than enough for students to want to campaign about, the coronavirus pandemic has almost certainly blown the sector open in a way that has never been seen before. The higher education sector has been deeply exposed for its shortcomings; but business has continued as usual. This has deeply angered many students, and rightly so.
Thousands of graduates left university several months ago, and did so into a job market that has contracted and ultimately bares little resemblance of a normal economy.
If this wasn’t bad enough, the first wave of coronavirus and a lack of government assurance forced Universities into a recruitment overdrive to protect their finances, whilst not considering the effects that thousands of students moving across the country may have. We are seeing the affects of this now.
Students and young people have been disproportionately affected by this virus; both in media and culture, but also in their future prospects. They are not only being blamed for the spread of coronavirus, but are facing the effects of it more sharply than most other groups in society. Students are affected by decisions that aren’t their fault; but face the repercussions more harshly than the actors of those decisions. It’s not fair; and it’s not going to change anytime soon.
The things that inspire us
Whilst all of the above has gone on, Students’ Unions have picked themselves up and got on with it; when in reality they really didn’t have to. Despite the turbulence in Westminster, and the global pandemic grinding everything to a halt, students have found ways to continue being great. This has ranged from online communities to socially distanced societies; constant representation through writing to ministers and mp’s. But above all, the shining light from the sector despite changes in student leadership midway through this pandemic has seen little change in the confidence of student officers to continue to want to enact positive change.
Rather than seeing this for the good that it is, the government have chosen to use this situation as an opportunity to attack Students’ Unions who look to support students through this period; rather than seeing them for their benefit. Despite the incredibly poor decisions have been made on a national scale such as the A-Level fiasco, and now the return of students to university, students’ unions have just focused on doing the right thing. Great student advocacy and representation.
The many sabbatical officers elected across the country have ripped up their manifestos and policies, and have rolled their sleeves up into the unknown realms of dealing with a pandemic. Likewise, CEOs and colleagues across the SU sector have ensured students are placed front line and centre. This is despite a tough financial economy, and many Unions are ultimately grinning and baring it through a tough period with the hope of good times returning. This true test of character has shown the steeliness and strength of Students’ Unions, and is exactly why we wanted to launch a business on campaigning for students.
We want to remind officers that they don’t need to rip up the policies and manifestos they ran on. It’s arguable that now those campaigns are more important than ever, as for many of these issues that virus will only make them more entrenched and much worse. As the labour market and hospitality industry further contract; decent work for students will become more of an issue and it’s imperative that sabbatical officers continue with their fantastic representation in protecting students through this time.
Likewise with more people than ever working from home, the officers who ran on platforms of sustainability should continue as ever to urge people to think about the impact of their activities on the planet, rather than commuting and polluting cities and campuses.
And for the officers wanting to tackle issues around sexual violence and harassment, the BAME attainment gap and the many other issues that Universities simply aren’t good enough on tackling yet, it is more important than ever that the sector is reminded of these issues as these issues fall to the bottom of the list of priorities of the people who need to make these changes. We know the impact of coronavirus is unequally felt too, and this must also be made clear to politicians and senior management across the higher education sector when they make decisions affecting students.
There’s always been issues for students to campaign about, and that’s why where here. The thing this article is getting at, is there’s even more issues to sort out now. We want to equip student leaders with the confidence and belief that this change can be enacted, and support them in making those changes. We aren’t representative, nor are we here to say what is right or wrong – we’re just here to support students in being the change they want to see.
The things we want to achieve
We want to get you talking about the issues that matter, and that is first and foremost why we want to cover issues in the news ourselves and talk about what it may mean for students. There’s already a wealth of fantastic content across the sector that talks about what is going on; but we want to tell you what you can do in response to it. That’s why we’ll cover news as it breaks, and come up with ideas in how you can respond to it.
We want to connect you with people across the sector too. We know just how important your thoughts and ideas are; and it’s likely there are many others who share similar opinions too. Whilst we find ourselves grappling with these difficult times, it is easier to find strength in one another, and when things get better too, positive relationships through the tough times will thrive in better ones. As a sector we can learn a great deal from sharing our thoughts, and we want to offer you a platform for that. That’s why we’ll look to let you know who is working on what in the sector, and how you can get in touch with them. As part of our regular newsletter’s we’ll be looked to get you in touch with one another.
We want to hear from you too. If you have thoughts, or a campaign or something you want to say to people we want to use our business as your platform to do that. Getting a campaign off the ground can be tough sometimes, and if we can act as a vehicle to support you in doing that, it’d be our pleasure.
Above all though, we want to continue to grow as a business and offer you more as we develop and grow. We have a strategy which will eventually end up with us working full-time to support your needs through both consultancy and training. Before we get there though, we are focused on keeping things simple and doing them right. We have a strategy which we’ll be making public at the end of October and that will set our future direction as a company.
Between now and Christmas, we see Campaigns for Students as being on the start of its journey and that’s why we’ll let anyone who wants to join us on it do so at no cost. Financially, it’s a tough time at the moment anyway so we see ourselves as voluntary civil servants to Students’ Unions for the time being. From January onwards, we have plans to grow and move to being a paid service – but for now we just want to work with you and help you in realising your dreams and ambitions.
So that’s who we are, and what we’re looking to achieve. I hope you want to join us and if you do, you can subscribe to our services until the end of this calendar year for free, by clicking here.
Jake Verity is the Chief Executive Officer at Campaigns for Students.
You can follow Jake on Twitter here: @jake_verity